The Sunday Leader

Housing For The Displaced

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya

The housing problems of the displaced are yet to be resolved and some of these displaced persons are still either in temporary shelters or live as IDPs. Hence the government is currently in the process of once again addressing their housing concerns are planning on constructing another 50,000 houses for them. This endeavour will be carried out under the purview of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and tenders have already been called for the construction of these houses.

In the past many initiatives were taken for the provision of houses for the displaced. However there was stiff opposition and criticism from several Tamil parties regarding the construction of these housing projects for the displaced, including from the TNA. However, as a means of resolving the housing issue the Ministry of Prison Reforms and Resettlement initiated a project to build prefabricated houses for the displaced in the North. However, this initiative was met with harsh criticism and objections. While some of the people were in favour of receiving completed houses that were being given to them by the government, others preferred to be given the money to construct their own houses. On the other hand others made it a political issue and used it to criticise the government. In the midst of all this, while the prefabricated housing project to be implemented by the resettlement ministry was being criticised and the agreement signed was also been criticised, Minister Daya Gamage too was looking to implement another prefabricated housing project. However, in the midst of this tug of war between these ministries, it was eventually the people that were sandwiched in-between and were eventually deprived of any housing. Perhaps since so far nothing in this regard had materialised, the Prime Minister may have decided to take over the project and see to it himself that the people are provided housing eventually.

For the conflict affected communities in the North and East, a house is not merely a means of shelter, but an inextricable part of their culture. A house passes down from generation to generation; parents build a house with the hope of one day giving it to their children. For the Tamil People, a house is thus part of one’s culture, history and heritage, and is expected to last for several generations. Thus, these concerns relating to durability are a matter of especially great concern.

However, now the tenders are being called by the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation. The Prime Minister may have taken the decision to take the housing construction project for the displaced under his purview, due to the issues that had cropped up during this whole resettlement project.

The tender was called for the financing and construction of 50,000 permanent mortar and brick type houses for the conflict affected families in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Chairman of the Cabinet Appointed Negotiation Committee (CANC) on behalf of the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation had invited sealed requests for the proposed building of these houses under various packages. This has been organised into three segments consisting of various packages of 500 houses each. A builder may apply for one or more packages.

Currently there are around 150,000 displaced due to the war and these 50,000 houses will only satisfy a segment of these persons. However, it is a starting point and some solace that even 50,000 of them will receive housing facilities eventually. The money required for the construction of these housing projects will be made available through the Government Agent.

Apart from their housing issues, what we witnessed during our recent tour of the war affected areas was that these people still battle with many issues in addition to being displaced. Under these circumstances, although the government may give those cash to build their own houses, it is unavoidable that these people may spend that money on other pressing day to day needs. Hence, these people eventually may use that money and not have enough left for the construction of their houses. In fact there are just a handful of the displaced, who have actually built housing with the money they received from the government for this purpose.

Similar to housing, another serious concern in the North is unemployment. In these circumstances, serious consideration must be given to use the opportunity provided by such a construction project to facilitate the use of available local labour.

The government therefore should undertake a review of the initiative in question, and properly address all of the above concerns in implementing this, or any other initiative to address the housing crisis in the North and East.

The Government’s resolve to address the housing need of the North and East is indeed commendable. However, all such efforts must take into consideration the needs and culture of the people themselves, and long term implications the initiative will have on the community. It is only then that such efforts can be an effective part of reconciliation.

On the one hand people tend to use the money they have been given for housing for other personal issues, and on the other hand the money they receive is insufficient for the construction of their houses too. Such are the practical problems that face the displaced and the government on the other hand. However, it is definitely a must that these displaced persons who are victims of the war, be provided the assistance they need in rebuilding their lives and assist them get back on their feet and recommence their shattered lives.

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